Napoleon’s Failed Hero System
“You may be taller, but I am greater” - Napoleon Bonaparte
The cold wind cut right through the soldiers skin. It’s been days since they’ve felt their toes, and thousands of their comrades lay lifeless on foreign ground. But they continued to walk, following the steps of the man they looked up to as a god. They bought into his dream, his aspirations, and his commands. With every extra step they took, the impenetrable illusion of their leader’s glory began to crumble. The longer they marched on freezing Russian soil, the less they felt immortal.
Napoleon Bonaparte, the magnificent emperor of France, had conquered almost all of Europe by the time his troops entered into conflict with the Russians. Yet this proved to be one of the key events that led to his downfall. Napoleon’s mighty army began with an incredible 600,000, while the opposing Russians barely half this size. Yet the Russians had a plan: to continuously retreat.
Every step forward Napoleon’s army made, the Russian troops retreated further into their homeland. They not only retreated, but burnt down and deserted entire villages and cities as they did. Of course, this was costly for the Russians too, but it proved fatal for Napoleon. His army relied on the extra resources and food gained through the raiding of foreign land, and did not regularly carry around food that could sustain the large army. But every place they would arrive at would be left barren, further discouraging the already hungry soldiers. For 5 long months, Napoleon’s army endlessly pursued the troops into the cold winters of the north, while his magical leadership began to wane in the face of death.
By the time of Napoleon’s concession in December of 1812, less than 100,000 soldiers remained. Moreover, valuable resources such as weapons and horses had been eradicated due to the harsh climate and battles they had to endure. But most consequentially, Napoleon’s invisible status came into question. His powerful empire that swept across Europe was falling.
Why did Napoleon continue to pursue the Russians as his soldiers dropped left and right? What was there more to prove? He was the most powerful man on the continent, and had cut out a large piece of cake on the globe for his empire. Wasn’t that enough? To understand this, we need to go back in time, to see how young Napoleon came to understand his place in the world.
Born into chaos
In the late summer of 1769, Napoleon was born on the Mediterranean island of Corsica. The island is located south of Italy and France, who had just claimed independence from the Republic of Genoa in 1755 (the former Italian state). As any other state that had just gained independence, their spirits were high with pride after overthrowing the regime they had been pushed into.
But when Napoleon’s mother was still pregnant with him, the Republic of Genoa “ceded” the island of Corsica to the French. As the new “owners” of the island began to press into their land, the Corsicans strongly resisted; they were not going to let their independence disappear so quickly. Both Napoleon’s parents joined the resistance, his father even becoming the personal assistant to the leader of the movement. However, the French quickly overpowered the small island and in the midst of such change and chaos, the future emperor of France was born.
Friends, School, and Identity
Like many other influential, sexist men of the world, Napoleon grew up under a strong influence from his mother. Yet it was the status of his father that granted him the experience to become a powerful figure in European politics.
Shortly after the Corsican resistance was defeated (although many Corsican’s continued to aspire for independence), Napoleon’s father openly embraced the new French administration. This gave him many privileges other Corsican’s did not receive that extended down to his young son Napoleon. The main “luxury” Napoleon received was an education in the mainland of France.
At age 9, Napoleon began attending school in central France and soon after transferred to a military academy. The Corsican boy endured much isolation and bullying during this time. His foreign heritage, rugged French, and his short-stature became targets for ridicule. In response, Napoleon did not accommodate for the French way, but as historian Adam Zamoyski put it, isolated himself “with a prickly defensive arrogance”. He openly spoke out for the independence of his mother island and eventually penned a book on the history of Corsica. Napoleon also became obsessed with proving his superiority over others, by pursuing excellence in all avenues of his life.
But this continuous isolation from peers, family, and home took a toll on young Napoleon. When he was 16, Napoleon wrote an essay where he struggles with the very thing Ernest Becker wrote about: death and purpose in life. The young officer wrote:
Always alone in the midst of men, I come back to my rooms to dream with myself, and to surrender myself to all the vivacity of my melancholy. Towards which side is it turned today? To the side of death… What is there to do in this world? Since I must die, is it not just as well that I should kill myself? If I had already passed my sixtieth year, I should respect the prejudices of my contemporaries, and wait patiently till nature had finished me in its course; but since I begin to experience misfortune, and since nothing is a pleasure to me, why should I support a life in which nothing prospers for me? (Browning 2017:283)
Here, we clearly see that Napoleon is struggling with the paradoxical nature of his creaturely being. He knows he will die, but he also sees his life as meaningless. And, are you surprised? Napoleon’s life seems horrible! To make matters even worse, around the time of this writing, Napoleon’s father passes away. What devastates the Bonaparte’s isn’t this death, but the incredible debt his father had left his family to deal with.
The future emperor was born into a world that brewed identity crises and shuns out people like Napoleon as a function of its culture. His mother land of Corsica was annexed by the French, his very own father who had strongly opposed the French now flipped his opinion and became part of their regime (who also left the family overwhelmed with debt), and he had to endure much bullying during his years in school. Things may have been better if he had grown up in Corsica, learning the ways of life there. Unfortunately, he was sent to France when he was 9. In a world continuously spiraling down into chaos, what cultural story of life and death could he adhere to? None.
However, the tides of history began to blow Napoleon’s way a few years later with the French Revolution.
Finding Purpose in War: Napoleon’s Hero System
Ernest Becker wrote that “[s]ociety itself is a codified hero system, which means that society everywhere is a living myth of the significance of human life, a defiant creation of meaning” (1973:7). This “codified hero system” is what I have previously described as “culture” or “religion”, but now focused onto individual people. These hero systems are stories that people can follow to become a “hero” themselves, much like the system we call “the meritocracy” today. However in a place like 18th century France, these hero systems were not as glamorous as it may seem today. Even worse, the hero system of France created existential crises for outsiders like Napoleon who had no rightful place to thrive or belong. We can see how Napoleon struggled with this, as he desperately wanted to prove his significance through one-upmanship’s in school and politics. Regardless, Napoleon continued to feel isolated from the world.
But things began to change in the late 18th century, where the oppressed class of people were growingly frustrated with the incompetent nobility. This, as you may know from the famous musical Les Miserables, grew into the famous French Revolution of 1789. It was through this time that Napoleon found a place to belong and created a way for him to become a hero.
With the eruption of the French Revolution, revolutionary forces in Corsica also began to seek independence. Quickly noticing this, the still Corsican nationalist Napoleon returned home to put the military skills he had learned at school to good use. However, from the perspective of the Corsicans, Napoleon was just the son of a traitor. This, I imagine, would have been another blow to Napoleon’s self-esteem. The one group he had idealized throughout his entire childhood in France was not accepting of him as he fought for their cause. Following this, Napoleon’s loyalty began to move towards the French revolutionists, eventually parting ways with the Corsicans in 1793.
Napoleon quickly rose up the ranks within the revolutionary group, as he wrote pamphlets and newsletters to spread pro-republican ideas across the nation. Soon, Napoleon carved out a place for himself in the chaotic world.
In the spring of 1796, Napoleon is given charge of a poorly armed and hungry army to take to battle. Not much was expected out of them, but Napoleon had different plans. He masterfully organizes his soldiers and immediately goes out on the offense, knocking down enemy after enemy. But his brilliance isn’t just on the attack. During this entire campaign, Napoleon is selling himself to his soldiers, supporting government, and the citizens back in France. This was nothing new for him; in fact as we saw during his school days, this is essentially what Napoleon did all the time. The only difference was that now people were listening.
It is relatively common knowledge that people look to powerful, charismatic, “supernatural” individuals when their world is in turmoil. Just look at the recent rise of powerful individual leaders who exude a seeming “magic” and claim that they can fix all of societies problems. A great example of this is President George Bush’s incredible growth in approval rates after 9/11.
Before the attack on the Pentagon and Twin Towers, the President’s approval rate was extremely low, even among his own Republican supporters. But after 9/11, George Bush saw one of the most drastic rises in approval rates across the board. Why was this so? When the American people needed a charismatic hero in the midst of such confusion and turmoil, President Bush did just that. A week after the attack the president claimed: “We will rid the world of the evildoers.”
Finding this curious, Terror Management scholars conducted an experiment the following 2 years. The results were very simple. When American’s were not reminded of their death, they approved of Bush’s counterpart John Kerry. However, when they were reminded of their death, their approval rate of George Bush came on top (Landau et al. 2004). This goes to show — quite alarmingly— that our political ideals can quickly switch in the face of danger and death anxiety.
Similar things were happening in France as Napoleon swiftly rose through the ranks. Continuous war, a massive revolution, and a power vacuum that caused more turmoil left the French public in confusion and chaos. In other words, people were most likely thinking of death-related thoughts much more than usual. And then along comes Napoleon Bonaparte, a young, intelligent leader who had just successfully defeated enemies with a deprived army. Moreover, Napoleon sold himself as the brave leader who could save them all. Or as written by Madame de Rémusat, a close attendant to Napoleon’s first wife:
People believed quite sincerely that Bonaparte, whether as consul or emperor, would exert his authority and save [them] from the perils of anarchy (de Rémusat 2012:542).
Just as the citizens of the United States would be swept up by George Bush’s charisma, or how the Germans would admire Hitler’s magnetism, Napoleon was able to capitalize on the needs of the French people. But remember, Napoleon was also desperately looking for a place to belong. The two — the French public and Napoleon himself — were managing each other’s terror. One took on this role by becoming the invisible and all powerful leader the people so wanted. And the other provided the young leader with foreign origin and unresolved insecurities which provided the approval he sought after.
Napoleon, for possibly the first time in his life, found a place to belong, meaning in his life, and purpose in this mortal world. But this hero system was not sustainable, eventually driving Napoleon towards his downfall.
The fragile illusion in the mirror
Napoleon’s incredible rise to power was no doubt supported by many, and his continuously successful war campaigns coupled with propaganda kept this optimism high. Yet people grew tired of the constant war and social turmoil. They did not revolt against the French monarch to live in a world of constant war and chaos, but instead to bring a new order into play. To make matters worse, the continuous assertion of Napoleon’s own individual brilliance made him a target for those around him, especially the British who despised Napoleon’s effort to undermine their power. Counter-propaganda from the British grew popular across Europe and assassinations attempts threatened Napoleon’s life. The illusion was slowly cracking.
Yet Napoleon did not back down, unwilling to let go of the meaning in life he had found through the omnipotent ruler of the people who had once ridiculed him in school. To increase his legitimacy in the eyes of his people and enemies, he set about to crown himself the emperor of France. After 5 months of extensive planning, Napoleon was crowned emperor in December of 1804. At the height of the moment, when the crown was to be placed on Napoleon’s head, people expected the Pope – the religious leader – to enshrine Napoleon with the crown. But to everyone’s surprise, he picked up the crown and symbolically placed it on his own head. The crown never rested on the emperors head as he adamantly wore a laurel wreath that replicated his idolized Roman emperors. To make things even more baffling, just a few months after this event, Napoleon crowned himself again, but this time emphasizing himself as ruler of Italy – including his mother island of Corsica.
It seems clear that Napoleon understood that his status was a shaky one, built on the foundation of constant war and plunging enemies. As he is recorded to have claimed:
Don’t you see that I was not born on the throne, that I have to maintain myself on it in the same way I ascended it, with glory, that an individual who becomes a sovereign like me cannot stop, that he has to keep climbing, and that he is lost if he stands still (Zamoyski, 2019).
If it is not any clearer through this quote, Napoleon’s terror management system was his own conflated image of power and control. He managed his fear, insecurity, and terror through an image of himself as a powerful Roman emperor-like hero. Any threat to this ideal of his, as seen through the studies of terror management, would be an existential threat.
The same can be seen in his reactions to failed personal relationship or public criticism. Every betrayal or ridicule reminded Napoleon that there was only himself to trust, reminiscent of his days in school isolated and alone. And as briefly mentioned earlier, this “individualistic” stance to rule made Napoleon an easy target for those who resented him.
Illusion Shattered: The Betrayal and Invading Russia
In summer of 1812, Napoleon had built the largest army Europe had ever seen of 600,000 people, with even more supporting groups providing resources and aid. Utilizing his allies and newly won territories, the army comprised of groups who pledged allegiance to many different rulers — only to be unified under the name of Napoleon. This was to be the largest undertaking of the emperor, but also, the most fatal.
A conflict arose as the continental blockade Napoleon instilled to stop trading supplies entering his nemesis Britain began to cripple the Russians. Although Russia had joined hands with Napoleon just 5 years earlier, the increasing debt and social unrest within Russia pushed Emperor Alexander to resume trade with Britain.
This action enraged the insecure and fragile Napoleon, as it undermined his legitimacy as the ruler of Europe and his wish to eventually conquer Britain. Quickly, Napoleon prepared for war to teach Alexander a lesson.
But war was not practical for Napoleon at this time. Invading Russia required all the power Napoleon’s empire could conjure up and exhausted the limited supplies. Moreover, Napoleon was already warring on the west side of the continent in Spain. These conditions made many of his advisors urge Napoleon to ignore the Russian betrayal and refrain from embarking on this consequential battle. But of course, Napoleon could not let his power be thwarted. To use his own words:
An individual who becomes a sovereign like me cannot stop, that he has to keep climbing, and that he is lost if he stands still (Zamoyski, 2019).
By using every ounce of his political influence across the continent, Napoleon created an army of 600,000 and began marching into the vast land of Russia.
Napoleon had planned to force a surrender from the Russian army in 5 weeks, but by July, his army had chased down the Russian army 400 kilometers into foreign land without any success. The Russian marshals understood that their smaller forces would stand no chance against the might of the French Empire, and continuously retreated while scorching any available crops or villages that could be used to benefit Napoleon’s army far from home.
The unstable roads of Russia caused the supplemental food and to aid arrive slowly to Napoleon’s people, making their endeavor even harder. Moreover, smaller Russian groups conducted “hit and run” attacks on the French army and supply carriages, cutting off valuable resources to the main army. By this time, even without engaging in any large scale clash with the Russians, 20% of Napoleon’s army had died away from illness or fatigue. But Napoleon continued to chase, eager to catch up and force the Russians into a battle.
The continuous retreat of the Russians had a heavy toll on them. The strategy of burning down their own villages and cities ate at the morale of the Russian soldiers. So on September 7th — long beyond the intended times frame of Napoleon — the two armies finally clashed near Moscow, more than 750 kilometers away from allied ground.
This battle — to be known as the Battle of Borodino — was the deadliest battle in history at that time, with over 80,000 casualties all together. The French were just a few days march away from Moscow, the holy city of the Russians, and Napoleon believed that if they captured this city the Russians would finally surrender. Napoleon pushed hard, eventually granting him a costly win and seeing the Russian army retreat once again.
However, when Napoleon and his army finally arrived at the great city of Moscow, he again found the city barren and destroyed. No sign of surrender was heard and the days passed as his army slowly starved in Moscow. With only a troop of 100,000 left, he became outnumbered by the Russian forces for the first time — only to find his people hungry, irritated, and thousands of kilometers away from home. To makes matters worse for the self-appointed emperor; more social unrest was brewing up back near his home and most consequentially, the dreaded Russian winter was approaching.
With no sign of surrender from the Russians, Napoleon reluctantly began to retreat to safer grounds in October. At the same time, Emperor Alexander of Russia proclaimed famously: “Now is the moment my campaign begins”. The tides reversed, and now Napoleon was running away from the Russians.
In the end, the invasion of Russia was the beginning of, and the largest contributor to Napoleon’s downfall. Many leaders and even his own marshals turned against him, eventually exiling the emperor to the island of Elba in 1815. Although he did attempt to recover his broken image, he never was able to become the hero he imagined himself to be.
Napoleon’s life is like a comedic tragedy, with humorous episodes of him struggling with women to the brutal wars and internal struggles he endured. But in the end, he returned to the place of his childhood: without a place to belong, meaning in life, and death looming large on his mind.
He was forbidden to meet his son and wife when exiled to the island of Saint Helena, only to slowly die away at the age of 51. The world made of hierarchy, eternal economic growth, and conquest did not provide Napoleon with the terror management tools in the end; pushing him into his own downfall. His life was a desperate shout into the void of chaos, having the fortune of being heard during a short period in our history. Are we to praise Napoleon because he was able to achieve a form of “immortality” as we continue to remember him more than a century after his death? Or should we reflect upon his struggle, insecurity, and fear even at the height of his career?
Napoleon’s story continues to be replicated today as people learn the cultural immortality schema of life as endless heroic excellence. The ruthless CEO’s needing to gain $1 more, school shooters asserting their existence, or the obsessive social media “influencers” all find meaning and purpose for their mortal lives by endlessly chasing ideals that mean nothing in the end. Stars of today are simply replaced by the stars of tomorrow, remembered only by small plaques on the streets of Hollywood or an obscure corner on the internet. Our culture only quells this anxiety and insecurity momentarily, by distracting us with the scurry of seemingly important events of paperwork or tweets. In the end, we all are exiled alone to nursing homes, tubed up on a hospital bed, and unable to come to terms with our own death.
We will explore these realities in the ending chapters of the book, but for now questions still remain. What role did the fear of death play in the conquest of the world, beyond just the conflicts in Europe? It is a little more understandable how the betrayal of Russia could threaten another European nation, but was there such a threat from people who lived across oceans? Why did conquest, colonialism, and forced assimilation emerge on a global level? These are the questions we will explore in part 2: The threat of the “Other.”